By Peter Thompson B.Theo Grad Dip Theology
There are a number of biblical principles which still perplex to some degree or another even the best scholars, and while those scholars manage to give something of an explanation, many of us can tell that something is not right.
One of these issues involves three New Testament exhortations for the whole church to come to one mind. These texts are glossed over today considering that the church is ridiculously splintered and fragmented, and the hope of the global church completely coming to one mind over even one basic issue is virtually lost, despite the noble efforts of the ecumenical movement over many decades. Something is indeed wrong.
But we need not despair just yet, as there is I believe a viable, and rather simple, solution. However, to begin to understand this properly will require three parts. In this first part, we will look at each of the two Pauline exhortations in some detail. In the second part, we will look at the third exhortation, this time by Peter, and then at an instance in Acts when the church did in fact come to one mind over a heated issue. Finally, in Part 3, we will look at what I consider to be a viable proposal on how the church was able to achieve this unity.
The Corinthian Church Problem
It is well-known that division, segregation and strife significantly disrupted the Church at Corinth:
- Most church members were declaring themselves to be followers of a particular leader over against other leaders which resulted in the formation of factions, causing quarrels and strife (1 Corinthians 1:11-13; 3:3-5; compare 2 Corinthians 10:12, 17-18);
- Some church members were taking their fellow believers to secular courts to resolve their disputes (1 Corinthians 6:1-8);
- The wealthy factions within the church were eating separately from the less fortunate members, humiliating them and causing them to go away hungry (1 Corinthians 11:17-22); and
- Certain church members were declaring themselves spiritually superior to the rest of the church community because of their wisdom, knowledge or charismatic giftedness in tongues and/or prophecy, resulting in exclusive factions and causing weaker members to stumble (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:18-20; 4:6-7, 18-20; 8:1, 7-13; 14:36-40; compare 1 Corinthians 1:20-31).
Paul’s Solution to the Corinthian Problem
What is not generally understood is Paul’s overall solution to the problem:
- The Father has called all believers into the fellowship of His Son, and hence the Father is the source of the whole Church’s life in Christ Jesus whom the Father made to be their wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:9, 30; compare 1 Corinthians 12:6);
- To all believers in their fellowship with Jesus Christ, Christ is the power and wisdom of God, and sustains them all to the end (1 Corinthians 1:4-9, 24; compare 1 Corinthians 12:5; Matthew 28:18-20; Hebrews 13:5; John 15:1-8; Colossians 2:19);
- The whole Church community has the Holy Spirit who teaches them all, enabling them all to understand the things freely given to them, and empowers them all with various supernatural giftings (1 Corinthians 2:12-13; 12:7-11; compare 1 Corinthians 12:4);
- Church leaders are not to domineer the flock of God, for the church belongs to Christ, not to them, and therefore the leaders belong to the church community as humble servants/slaves of Christ the rightful owner (1 Corinthians 1:2; 3:5-9, 21-22; 4:1-2; compare Ephesians 1:12-14; 4:30 [the seal speaks of ownership]; Acts 20:28-30; Ephesians 4:11-12; 2 Timothy 24-26; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:7, 17);
- Genuine, self-giving love is to motivate all that is done in the church community so that all are built-up (1 Corinthians 8:1; 13:1-8; 16:14; compare 1 Corinthians 10:23-24; Ephesians 4:12-16);
- The whole Church is to agree and be united in the same mind and same judgment, for the church community has the mind of Christ by means of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:10; 2:10-16; 2 Corinthians 13:11); and
- The Gospel is not to be hindered by self-seeking, greed, ambition for power and recognition, or strife (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 4:1-8; 5:11-15; compare 1 Corinthians 9:18-23; John 13:34-35; 17:22-23).
Looking at the whole picture here, we can start to see something of a progression emerging in Paul’s method of dealing with the fragmentation and divisions within the Corinthian church — Jesus has become the church’s life, being all the wisdom and power the church needs through the Spirit, and He therefore allows us by His Spirit to access (supernaturally) His mind (and hence wisdom) to guide all decisions and judgments so that the whole church can, together, thoroughly agree with each other for the sake of the Gospel. After all, Jesus is Lord and Head over the church!
A similar sort of progression can be discerned in Philippians.
The Philippian Church Problem
Paul also had to deal with some divisive issues in the Philippian church community:
- Some members of the church were acting out of selfish ambition, rivalry and empty conceitedness, thinking too highly of themselves (Philippians 2:3);
- Others were also looking out for their own interests/concerns (Philippians 2:4);
- There was a lot of complaining/grumbling evident within the community (similar to the early Israelites in the desert — 1 Corinthians 10:10; Exodus 16:7-12; 17:3; Numbers 14:17-29 etc.), which occurred in the context of disputes/controversies (Philippians 2:14); and
- In particular, two important women ministers in the Philippian Church, Euodia and Syntyche, were not seeing eye to eye with each other (Philippians 4:2).
Paul clearly suggests that such self-seeking and disunity is not a manner of life worthy of the Gospel (Philippians 1:27; compare Ephesians 4:1-3).
Paul’s Solution to the Philippian Problem
In this case, Paul’s overall solution is:
- Finding solace in the Father’s love in the midst of suffering (Philippians 2;1; compare 2 Corinthians 13:14);
- Being comforted in Christ in the midst of persecution (Philippians 2:1; compare 2 Corinthians 1:3-5);
- Sharing in the Spirit together (Philippians 2:1; compare 2 Corinthians 13:14);
- Their love for one another abounding yet more and more (Philippians 1:9; compare Philippians 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 4:9-10);
- Their love for one another being accompanied by full knowledge (of God and His will) and moral insight so that they may together discern, i.e. assess for approval, those things that really matter (Philippians 1:9-10; compare Philippians 3:12-21; 4:8-9; Romans 12:1-2);
- Humbly seeking the interests of others (Philippians 2:3; compare Romans 15:1-2);
- Each one emptying themselves as Christ Himself did (Philippians 2:5-11);
- Setting their minds, even their whole being (soul/person), on the same thing together (Philippians 2:2; compare Romans 12:16); and
- Contending together as one person (soul) for the Gospel, standing firm in one Spirit (Philippians 1:27; compare Ephesians 2:18).
Summarising this Solution
This apparent progression is summed up in a careful assessment of Philippians 2:12-15. They were to:
- continue to obey (presumably Christ — 2 Corinthians 10:5-6), for God Himself works in them to effect this obedience to His will for His own good pleasure (note Romans 7:7-25 which describes how a God-fearer before conversion is incapable of obeying God’s will revealed in Scripture);
- by actively working out their salvation in how they live their lives together, for obedience characterises true faith (Romans 1:5; 15:18; James 2:14-26);
- which is accomplished by ceasing their divisive disputes/controversies leading to complaints/grumbling;
- which then allows them to be blameless and pure, children of God without fault, holding firmly onto the word of life in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation (unlike the crooked and depraved generation of blemished Israel who forfeited being God’s children — Deuteronomy 32:5), and in so doing, effectively presenting the Gospel, the message which brings life, to them (compare Daniel 12:3).
In other words, the Philippians needed to stop whatever squabbling was going on as a result of their self-seeking and get on with being God’s blameless children, shining as stars in pagan Philippi. They were to do this by setting their minds on the same thing in total agreement, for God empowers them to be obedient to His will. The way the Philippian church conducted themselves in unity without disputes therefore affected their capacity to present the Gospel in the midst of persecution.
Final Exhortation by Paul
This is given particular emphasis in Philippians 4:1-3, for Euodia and Syntyche had successfully, before their current disagreement, laboured together with Paul in the Gospel with Clement. Now, they are exhorted by Paul to agree with each other in terms which echo Philippians 1:27 and sum up Paul’s pleas so far:
- Standing firm in the Lord (i.e. being steadfast, the concern of Philippians 3:1-21);
- Agreeing with each other in the Lord (i.e. unity, the concern of Philippians 2:1-16); and
- Contending in the cause of the Gospel (the backdrop to the whole epistle).
Only as the Philippians stood firm in the sphere of their relationship with the Lord Jesus were they empowered to obey God’s will, and consequently come into full agreement and be of the one and same mind together, thereby ceasing to hinder the effective spread of the Gospel.
There is a lot of similarity in these two exhortations by Paul for the Corinthian and Philippian churches to agree and come to one mind within their separate communities for the sake of the Gospel. This similarity will be explored further in Part 2.
To review the studies included in the Framework and find out why we have concluded these things you will need to see the notes which are available by contacting us.
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Peter “Thommo” Thompson was born in 1958 in the bulldust of south-western Queensland in the region around the township of Mitchell. He was converted outside of the church through a supernatural encounter with the living God in Mackay, North Queensland, in February 1979, and embarked upon a long and arduous journey of God dealing with the figurative bulldust in his life. In 2012, he completed a Bachelor of Ministry & Theology double degree, and in 2013, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Theology, all at Tabor Adelaide. He currently lives with his two adult daughters in Ipswich, Queensland, and is writing a series of academic novels with the intent of hopefully helping to facilitate a church unifying movement through an unbranded form of Christianity in Australia.
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